Calaca

grim fandango

A calaca [kal-ah-kuh] (a colloquial Mexican Spanish name for skeleton) is a figure of a skull or skeleton (usually human) commonly used for decoration during the Mexican Day of the Dead festival, although they are made all year round. Tracing their origins from Aztec imagery, calacas are frequently shown with marigold flowers and foliage. As with other aspects of the Day of the Dead festival, calacas are generally depicted as joyous rather than mournful figures. They are often shown wearing festive clothing, dancing, and playing musical instruments to indicate a happy afterlife. This draws on the Mexican belief that no dead soul likes to be thought of sadly, and that death should be a joyous occasion. This goes back to Aztec beliefs, one of the few traditions to remain after the Spanish conquest.

Calacas used in the festival include carved skull masks worn by revelers, small figures made out of carved wood or fired clay, and sweet treats in the form of skulls or skeletons. Calacas are sometimes made of wood, stone, or even candy. A popular phrase among Mexicans and those Latinos that personally know some is ‘se lo (la) llevo la calaca’ after someone has died, literally meaning ‘the Calaca took him (her)’ or ‘death took him (her).’ In Guatemala, ‘calaca’ is understood as ‘death’ and implies fear of death. Thus, it is not depicted as a joyful image. Calaca-like figures can be seen in the Tim Burton films ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ and ‘Corpse Bride,’ the 2008 PlayStation 3 game ‘LittleBigPlanet,’ and the 1998 Tim Schafer computer game ‘Grim Fandango.’

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